20mph speed limits: a dishonest ‘consultation’

A sign with the number 20 in a red circle on a white background with 'zone' underneath in bold Swiss type; under that is a child's drawing of a red snail. Behind the signpost is a red brick wall.

Last August I wrote on here about the new 20mph zone that has been imposed by Richmond borough council (in London) across the whole borough, with a few main roads exempted. Since then a similar zone has appeared across Merton, on the other side of Kingston, and now our borough is ‘consulting’ and asking for residents’ opinions on imposing one here too. The consultation, although it is ‘statutory’, is not legally binding and the borough does not have to actually honour the response (in Richmond, those who responded mostly said no, but what were deemed ‘vulnerable’ road users were mostly in favour). The plans as stated on the Council’s website are to impose a 20mph speed limit on all roads managed by the borough, which would exclude only private roads (which normally have a 20mph or lower limit) and those managed by Transport for London, which in Kingston include only the by-pass and the roads that approach it.

Well, I opened up the online ‘consultation’ (it required me to set up an account on their website) and it did not mention the scheme being about all roads in the borough but about all residential roads, which is not the same thing as commonly understood. A residential road is a road that is principally used for access to housing, either by residents, visitors or delivery personnel. A main road is used for inter-town access, such as the A2043 road through New Malden which runs from Kingston into Sutton (it is not the main road to Sutton town centre, but to the western parts of that borough). Of course, a main road often has houses along it, but the same is true of the main roads run by TfL as well. The 30mph speed limits on main roads are generally respected, at least partly because of years of public education that the limits are there for a reason. Reducing it to 20mph in the absence of any public campaign gives an entirely different message, that the limit is just there because the council says so, and local councils are not held in particularly high regard. If they were, for example, the removal of the NHS and much of the education system from local authority control could not have gone ahead, or lasted.

There is one question in the ‘consultation’ that asks “To what extent do you agree with the council’s proposal to introduce a 20mph speed limit on residential roads in the borough, in order to help make our streets safer for everyone”, which is a loaded question and is not honest about the nature of the scheme. There are further questions about whether we agree that a 20mph limit will make roads safer or reduce car use, which clearly indicate that they are not intended for the council to listen to the responses but judge how receptive we are to their agenda. Perhaps a 20mph limit will make roads safer; 10mph will make them safer still, but also mean that getting anywhere takes ages, whether we take the bus or our cars; there is a balance to be struck, on main roads, between pedestrian safety (which can also be addressed by installing more signalised and zebra crossings) and making sure main roads serve their purpose. They will not reduce car journeys unless public transport is drastically improved; I could not commute by public transport to most of the places I work as the connections are not there. They might just deter people from using borough roads to get from one place to another, which would shift the burden of road maintenance elsewhere (e.g. onto TfL) as well as give the impression of reduced numbers of car journeys. Perhaps that is the underlying objective of the scheme.

I responded to the consultation saying that I would support this scheme if it really meant only residential roads and not main roads as well, as has been imposed in Croydon and Wandsworth (though in Croydon, the low response rate to the consultation meant that only 1.5% of the population of the affected area in the north of Croydon expressed support). There is no public movement in favour of 20mph limits; it is a scheme invented in political circles to be imposed from “on high” (Kingston, like Richmond, has provided a link to the “20’s Plenty for us” website but it’s only the second time I’ve seen a link to it anywhere). Anyone who has travelled in areas where the zones have been implemented, especially in outer London, knows that they are generally ignored and people travel at a little below 30mph rather than a little either side which is the case on 30mph main roads; the average speed has been reduced by a tiny amount, in other words, which hardly justifies the money spent on procuring and installing the signs; it could be better spent on improving bus service frequencies or keeping fares down.

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